Jane Eyre, the musical now playing at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, has a lot in common with its solitary, struggling heroine. Like Jane, the show has traveled a long road in search of fulfillment (in this case, a five-year-plus development process). Also like her, it has been an object of abuse (at the hands of certain New York critics). Most importantly, however, the show and the heroine share a remarkable talent for endurance in the face of adversity. This is all to the good for readers of this magazine, because Jane Eyre has one of the most innovative designs to land on Broadway in years, combining scenery, lighting, and projection in ways that have never been seen before.
As written by John Caird (book and lyrics) and Paul Gordon (music and lyrics), and co-directed by Caird and Scott Schwartz, Jane Eyre closely follows the outlines of Charlotte Bronte's novel, in which a young orphan suffers the cruelties of indifferent relatives and institutionalized charity, dreaming only of the day when she will control her own destiny. As a young woman, she is sent to be a governess at Thornfield, a gloomy mansion presided over by the bitter, withdrawn Edward Rochester. Slowly, the two begin to fall in love, but Jane's troubles are just beginning. Rochester's past is riddled with terrible secrets which, when revealed, will nearly destroy Jane's happiness. She will endure a long separation, a painful confrontation with her past, a new suitor, and much more, before she finds happiness with Rochester.
In all respects, Jane Eyre is a beautifully designed production. Andreane Neofitou's costumes span all levels of Victorian society, from orphans' uniforms to frilly ball gowns. The sound design, by Mark Menard and Tom Clark, is highly sensitive, and includes a number of evocative effects. For the purposes of this article, however, we will concentrate on the interface between scenic, lighting, and projection design.
Scenic designer John Napier has been with Jane Eyre from the beginning, when it was done several years ago at the Center Theatre of Wichita “That was what we call the CARE package production,” he laughs. “I sent a model with John Caird to Kansas and they, apparently, built it.” This was followed by a tryout in Toronto, in the winter of 1996, where the production was overshadowed by the celebrated opening of Ragtime. Up to this point, the design was relatively simple, “one of those Victorian scaffolding things,” says Napier, with a turntable for multiple scene changes.
Given the mixed reviews in Toronto, the show might well have come to an end there. However, a new set of producers, led by Annette Niemtzow, came onboard, determined to bring Jane Eyre to Broadway. That's when Napier began to rethink his design. “John Caird had already said he wanted something less static, something more flowing and descriptive,” says the designer. “Then I got a call from Annette Niemtzow; she said, ‘John, I want you to do something original.’ It was a red rag to a bull, I'm afraid.”
Casting a ruthless eye on his own work, Napier says he began to ask questions: “What does the show need? It needs to be fluid. It needs to be simple, yet very atmospheric. And that's what I set about doing.” In addition, he says, Caird expressed the notion of “pieces of scenery floating in and out, rather like a Chagall painting. There needed to be an ethereal, slightly dreamy quality to it — as if Jane were having memories of these situations.”
For Jane Eyre's next stop, which was the La Jolla Playhouse, in California, Napier came up with another circular, revolving set. This time, however, there was something totally new, a 39-ton “carousel delivery drum.” It was a revolving grid that contained many of the production's lighting units, but which also housed moving dollies equipped with linesets that could lower scenic pieces as the carousel revolved. In addition, the stage deck contained three turntables. Thus, scenic pieces revolved into place onstage and, as the carousel revolved, other scenic pieces were lowered in, and the lighting units moved with the circular rig. Furthermore, scrim panels were lowered from the center of the drum, to reconfigure the space and provide a backdrop for the lighting. It was an exciting design, which caused a lot talk of in La Jolla (where Jane Eyre enjoyed a sold-out run).
Many designers would have been satisfied with this level of achievement and let well enough alone as Jane Eyre prepared for Broadway. However, Napier's mind was still at work. “The idea of having lighting instruments that could follow a piece of scenery and project on gauzes, when the whole thing was moving in space, got me excited — and into trouble,” he laughs. The La Jolla production had made minor use of projections, but Napier wanted to do much more with them, which is how Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer enter the story.
Fisher and Eisenhauer, who had no previous involvement in Jane Eyre, were approached by Napier about lighting the production, and also to consult on projection delivery systems. They were immediately enthusiastic about the project. Fisher says, “The carousel, as a device to deliver scenic elements, is revolutionary. From the Renaissance on, we have certain fixed methods of getting scenery onstage. John's design allows pieces to come in at any angle from almost any direction, and change location in space, as you watch.” However, the lighting designers had other innovations to bring to the table. Fisher and Eisenhauer set up a demonstration of Pani projectors for Napier. Then, says Fisher, “Peggy said, ‘What about Vari*Lites?’” That's because the company's latest VL6™ and VL7™ units can accommodate up to 14 color slides in their template slots; furthermore, with their flexibility of movement, they could make projections travel over the set with far more freedom than was possible with the Pani projectors. Napier quickly agreed to the new technology, as he was drawn, says Fisher, to the Vari*Lites' “cinematic, liquid, floating quality.”
Lisa Podgur Cuscuna, of Stamford, CT-based Cuscuna Multimedia, was brought onboard to create the projected images. Napier, Fisher, Eisenhauer, and Cuscuna are all credited with projection design, and each had a crucial role to play. Napier conceived the images (“He really knew what he wanted, from the beginning,” says Cuscuna, who adds that Napier reviewed her work daily). Cuscuna created them by taking photos, drawing images, and manipulating them in her computer using Adobe Photoshop and other programs; part of her work involved breaking up the images over several Vari*Lite units to create proper coverage. The images, transferred to a CD, were sent to Vari-Lite, where they were turned into glass gobos; these were then added to the Vari*Lite units, at which point they fell under the purview of Fisher and Eisenhauer.
Meanwhile, the set had been engineered and was beginning construction at SMI/ShowMotion, Inc. in Norwalk, CT. Bill Mensching, president of ShowMotion, notes that he has worked with Napier frequently in the past, on Starlight Express, Sunset Boulevard, the Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas, and parts of Miss Saigon. ShowMotion also built the La Jolla set, which, ironically, was slightly larger than the version slated for the Brooks Atkinson. As might be expected, the designer's ideas continued to evolve. “In La Jolla, the carousel had carry-off tracks located at right and left, like a train yard rail siding and track, where scenery was brought on and off the carousel system,” says Mensching. The software and control system allowed the rolling gantries to exit the main carousel and hand off to local pendant control. Stagehands located at stage left and right then took local control of the tracking gantries via pendant and loaded new scenic pieces on the dollies, which, after being loaded with scenery, would re-enter the carousel like a giant CD changer. For New York, with wing and fly space at a premium, Napier added a double-purchase batten system, which flies in the rotating drops; scenery changes are then done upstage of the drops, out of the audience's view. Onstage, the three turntables were reduced to two, with the addition of a large hydraulic elevator at stage center, and, on the deck level, two moving tracks to allow scenery to enter and exit on a diagonal line from stage left and stage right through automated vertical panels. Also, says Mensching, “The basic surround scenery that acts as a giant cyclorama projection surface is actually a circular array of six vertical sliders, along with four horizontal traveler blades, which allow the stage to be segregated into a variety of portal legs when activated.”
In order to properly engineer and realize this complicated scenic machine, Mensching and his staff did mockups of the set in the shop, to show Napier how the drops would drape as they rotated and lowered simultaneously via the inverted double-purchase battens. (The drops are made of a combination of Duvatyne and scrim, supplied by Rose Brand.) Next came the construction of the carousel. “We initiated a study of the theatre's structure,” says Mensching, “to see if it could take the load. As a result of the study, we determined that we had to bypass the theatre's gridiron and go directly to the building's roof girders to safely support the load. The calculations showed that the carousel, lighting, and automation combined weight was around 50,000lbs. We immediately began installing the superstructure in the Atkinson, while back at the shop, the crew built the individual pieces of the carousel and other scenic elements.” When the carousel was built, it was tested in the shop, and checked out by production carpenter Larry Morley and production electrician Richard Mortell. Mortell then took the opportunity to pre-hang most of his lighting gear, while the carousel was hanging and operating in the scene shop.
Of course, the transfer from Show-Motion's studio in Norwalk to the Brooks Atkinson was a complicated process. The set was disassembled and installed in the theatre in various stages. First came the structural frame, which attached to the previously installed girder steel and interfaced to the carousel, then came the main structural circular truss with the three orange commutator rings hung in the center of the inside walls of the carousel. The rings handle the set's various levels of power — one ring for lighting power, one for automation power, and one for position feedback. Next came the winches for the linesets followed by the three roving gantries, or dollies, which track, revolve, and lower the scenic pieces for the show as the carousel rotates. This was then followed by the hanging structures containing the motor drives and the lighting control cabinets. Finally came the drops and their associated guide rails, which prevent the swaying of the linesets during rotation. Other credited scenic contributors include Costume Armour, Showman Fabricators, and Hudson Scenic Studios. Mensching adds that the installation of the full set took approximately five weeks, including the theatre roof steel structural requirements.
While this was happening, Napier, Fisher, Eisenhauer, and Cuscuna were hard at work, blending the scenery, lighting, and projections; each day presented a new and difficult challenge. Fisher and Eisenhauer devised a rather small light plot of approximately 70 Vari*Lite units, with a limited number of ETC Source Fours to provide extra fill. Many units were hung on the overhead circular rig, in order to protect the projected images. However, says Eisenhauer, “If the carousel is moving clockwise, some lights will move away from the downstage playing area. When the scrim panels come in, you trap lights out of the audience's view.” Fisher adds that as a result, each unit had to perform multiple duties. “One moving light will project an image of leaves, then, five minutes later, it will be used as a backlight.”
Meanwhile, Cuscuna found her job getting bigger each day, as more and more projections were added to the design. “I must have made 200 pieces of artwork that then went into Photoshop or other programs,” she says. In virtually every case, her images are suggestive rather than explicit, per Napier's wishes. For example, she says, “There's one image with autumn trees and the shadow of a church steeple. The image tells you you're in a church graveyard without showing the graveyard. With the projection, you can infer the scenic pieces that aren't there. It allows your imagination to build the scene.”
To complicate matters, the designers did their work as the show was rewritten and restaged. “We had to determine overhead positions long before we knew the moment-by-moment requirements,” says Eisenhauer. “The center point of the turntable on the deck is different from the center point for the carousel above it. We needed to adjust the pan and tilt while the carousel was rotating, to maintain a constant look.” At the same time, Cuscuna was creating images without always knowing the angle from which they would be projected. Therefore, she says, “Everything has an extreme angle because it comes from the carousel ring. Each image has a top-and-bottom keystone and a left-right keystone as well.” In addition, many images are projected from the balcony rails, “which was our safety net. I could guess the keystoning from there.”
For everyone involved in Jane Eyre, time was the enemy. “We had to do something much more complex in the same amount of time,” says Eisenhauer, who points out that every moving light cue had to be coordinated with moving scenery and the music. Fisher adds that each lighting unit contains key visual information, so “every parameter was important to us.” Eisenhauer adds, “Imagine the exponential quality of it: There are approximately 70 Vari*Lite automated luminaries. Multiply that by 15 gobos. Multiply that by nine to 12 parameters per light — and you're into a really incredible matrix of responsibility for the technology.” Furthermore, the gobo-making process was very time-consuming. “It's a two-week process,” says Cuscuna, who adds, “It then takes another two weeks for another order. We only got to submit two orders. As it was, we got some images only a few days before we opened. Nobody was comfortable with that.”
By then, the show had postponed its opening by a week. “There was not enough planning time,” says Napier. “But then, producers and directors don't love technology. They like the end results, but they curse it out while it's happening. As no one had done this before, one wasn't at all sure how long it was going to take. It's the most frustrating and exhilarating thing, doing it under the beady eye of your producers, the director, your company.” As for the lengthy process of making gobos, he says, “It was pretty despairing at that point. It was a body blow, because everything was geared around the projections. We had to work with horrid mockup black-and-white scratch images, just to have something to place in the equipment, so Peggy and Jules could cue up where the images were to be.”
Meanwhile, the scenic automation was programmed using ShowMotion's proprietary AC2 Show Control System, which is based on a Mitsubishi operating system. The system also uses all AC motors of various horsepowers integrated with optical encoder feedback. The carousel is driven by two 10hp friction motors. “John wanted silence, precision, and speed,” says Mensching, adding, “He also wanted total integration with other scenic elements. For example, two of the double-purchase drop battens also track horizontally 4' offstage right or left to meet shutters and close off the stage at left and right forming various ‘portals.’” Mensching notes that special care was taken with the design of the carousel tracking carrier wheels, as “it's tough to move 50,000lbs quietly, quickly, and extremely accurately.” The joint accuracy of the lighting program and the scenic automation program is integral to the system, since both move in a totally separate axis parameter, but must arrive at the same position every time to line up the projections, scenery, and lighting units. Other aspects of the scenery include a grid-mounted people lifter that picks up Rochester's wife, to depict her death in a fire, and four spotline winches, which are spotted through the revolving carousel and carry non-tracking scenery. These spotline winches are safety-interlocked to the carousel as a safety precaution.
“Producers and directors don't love technology. They like the end results, but they curse it out while it's happening.”
The result of all this is a stunning fusion of multiple design elements. At one point, says Fisher, “A window flies in, with a beam of light going through it; as the carousel revolves and the window moves around the stage, the relationship of the light to the window remains the same.” At various points, the words of Bronte's novel are projected on the set; when members of the ensemble take over Jane's narration, the text is projected on them. When young Jane is punished at school, she stands at the center of the dark stage; images of windows float far above her, evoking her sense of loneliness and dejection. Later, when she first arrives at Thornfield, the mansion's gate looms before her in menacing fashion. When she wanders the moors, fleeing Thornfield, the landscape is created by projections of a moon and clouds.
Indeed, it's often difficult to tell where scenery quits and projections begin. The giant tree in Rochester's garden is an impressive piece of scenery, but Fisher notes, “It is lit with projections of branches, which fill out the image onstage.” He adds, “Look at the first big scene in Rochester's study. There's a window, a desk, some portraits. The wallpaper is projected on a scrim. The set” — which is created by scenery, projections, and lighting — “turns 15°, changing your point of view. It's something that the movies do all the time.” Cuscuna says, “The crossover is amazing. The lighting becomes the scenery and the scenery becomes the lighting.” Lighting was programmed using the Vari*Lite Virtuoso™ console, with the Virtuoso playback unit used to run the show. In addition, an ETC Obsession console handles the small number of conventional units.
Everyone stresses the collaborative nature of the production, and besides the people mentioned here, many others were involved. They include associate scenic designer Keith Gonzales, assistant lighting designer Bobby Harrell, Vari*Lite programmer Victor Fable, assistant electrician Derek Healy, and projection assistant Peter Nigrini. Bill Gorlin of M.G. McLaren provided the roof structure analysis for ShowMotion, Inc. at the Brooks Atkinson. Jon Cardone and Paul Stoltenberg were the project managers for ShowMotion. Scenic Art Studios was ShowMotion's subcontractor for scenic painting on the deck, surrounds, and drops. Lighting equipment, other than the Vari*Lite units, was supplied by Fourth Phase. Additional photographic images were supplied by Robert Schezen and Graham Nobles.
Even though Jane Eyre has had a difficult time after receiving mixed reviews (including a negative notice from The New York Times), all of the designers involved regard it as a highly satisfying experience. “It was an immense effort,” says Eisenhauer. “There were periods when we didn't really know if it all would work. But with our staff, and the support of Vari-Lite, a lot of smart people were willing to step up and solve the problems.” Napier, who quickly moved on to another large-scale production, the Metropolitan Opera's new revival of Nabucco, says wryly, “All I want in life is a show with a potted plant and a bentwood chair and nothing moving at all.”